Not content to sit back and let the men grab all the European football glory, Kazakhstan's top women's team has made its mark by holding Spain's Barcelona to a draw in the knockout stage of the UEFA Women's Champions League.
Last week, FC Astana made history by becoming the first team from Kazakhstan to gain a point in the Champions League group stage with a 2-2 draw with Turkey's Galatasaray, but the women's team BIIT-Kazygurt, based in Shymkent, southern Kazakhstan, is no stranger to European competition.
The team has been a regular in the knockout stages of the Women's Champions League since the competition was founded in 2009, but has never progressed beyond the round of 32 teams.
BIIK-Kazygurt fielded a cosmopolitan line-up against Barcelona with the teams defensive core hailing from Kazakhstan, and the rest of the team from the United States, Nigeria, Norway, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Barcelona took the lead after 57 minutes before BIIK-Kazygurt's Norwegian star Lisa-Marie Woods got the equaliser after 82 minutes.
Kazakhstan has had a women's football league since 2004, with BIIK-Kazygurt, then based in the commercial capital Almaty and known as Alma-KTZh, a founder member. The team relocated to Shymkent in 2010.
The league now consists of five teams – two from Shymkent, and one apiece from Almaty, Kokshetau and Aktobe. BIIK-Kazygurt were the runaway winners of this years league with a 100 percent record. Next week, the team makes the 4,300-mile trip to Spain for the return leg as it vies with FC Astana to bring European football glory to Kazakhstan.
Legislation approved last month by Kazakhstan’s parliament is creating onerous rules on how nongovernmental organizations are funded and sparking alarm among activists of a fresh crackdown on civil society.
Critics of the bill have drawn comparisons to a 2012 law adopted in Russia that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” a label with toxic Cold War-era associations.
Although the wording of the bill in Kazakhstan is different, many fear the results may be similar.
The law will grant the government “ideological control over NGOs,” activist Amangeldy Shormanbayev warned on October 6.
Over 60 NGOs have signed an appeal for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to veto the bill, which was approved by the lower house of parliament on September 23 and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate.
The petition warns that “if this draft law is adopted, it will seriously restrict human rights,” including the rights to freedom of speech, conscience and association.
Since the constitution guarantees those rights, the law is anti-constitutional and also breaches international human rights commitments to which Astana subscribes, the appeal said.
The law will establish a single state operator through which funding for NGOs must be channeled. Activists believe that will give the state a veto over which NGOs receive funding, and for what kind of activities.
The law “contradicts the principles of open civil society, because NGOs cannot be 100 percent dependent on the state,” Shormanbayev, a representative from the International Legal Initiative, a nongovernmental foundation offering legal advice, told a news conference in Almaty on October 6.
In a noteworthy backtrack, education authorities in Kazakhstan have ordered a revision of school textbooks to ensure that they do not show Crimea as a part of Russia.
Mektep, the publishing house that creates history and geography textbooks used in schools in Kazakhstan, sparked a diplomatic row in September when it appeared to endorse the annexation of the peninsula by Russia.
But the Education Ministry said in a painfully worded press release on September 30 that Mektep had erred in how it assembled its facts.
“It was noted that the authors did not apply the entire range of factuality in objectively composing the given material,” the statement said, according to an Interfax report. “The publisher and authors did not fully reflect the position of Kazakhstan or that of the international community in its treatment of the Crimea issue.”
It remains to be seen how the Mektep textbooks will now endeavor to characterize the status of Crimea.
When it issued its protest over the books on September 25, Ukraine’s embassy to Kazakhstan was clear.
The suggestion that Crimea should be part of Russia “contradicts the position of the international community and the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which has more than once stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the embassy said in its statement.
Kazakhstan's celebrations over FC Astana gaining its first Champions League point were cut short by news that its cycling superstar Alexandre Vinokourov could face charges of race-fixing in Belgium.
A Belgian prosecutor has ruled that Vinokourov should stand trial along with Russian rider Alexandr Kolobnev on charges that the two colluded to fix the result of Belgium's Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic in 2010. Vinokourov allegedly paid Kolobnev around $225,000 to let him win the race, Sky Sports reported.
If convicted, both riders could face between six months and three years in jail and fines of between $330,000 and $660,000. Vinokourov and Kolobnev have contested the decision on the basis that the evidence is too flimsy to convict them. The decision whether to bring the case to court will be made by October 15.
The news broke just after FC Astana, playing its first ever home fixture in the Champions League group stages, fought back against Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray to earn a 2-2 draw. The Turkish side scored two own goals to Astana's one in a bizarre match.
FC Astana, along with cycling's Pro Team Astana is part of Kazakhstan's flagship sports project, Astana Presidential Sports Club, which oversees football, cycling and ice hockey teams, as well as ice skaters and boxers. The club is bankrolled by Samruk-Kazyna, Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund.
Kazakhstan’s diplomatic balancing act over the conflict in Ukraine has been upset by a fresh row about the status of the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine’s embassy in Astana on September 25 addressed a note of protest to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry over school textbooks that show Crimea — which most of the international community, including Kazakhstan, recognizes as part of Ukraine — as belonging to Russia.
The information in the textbooks “contradicts the position of the international community and the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which has more than once stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the embassy said in its statement.
Only a handful of countries, including North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, have recognized Crimea as part of Russia. Other members of the international community — even usually staunch Moscow allies, like Belarus — insist the territory should be handed back to Ukraine.
Kiev has asked Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry and Education and Science Ministry to work toward “the immediate recall of these textbooks from secondary schools,” the embassy statement said. No response was immediately forthcoming.
The Ukrainian embassy’s contacts with Mektep, the publishing house that put out the offending textbooks, “testified that, unfortunately, a certain part of Kazakhstani society is deeply infected by Russian propaganda,” the statement said.
It urged action to boost Kazakhstan’s information security by restricting broadcasting of Russian television channels, which are beamed into homes all across Kazakhstan and play a large public opinion-forming role.
When an irate mother posted shocking pictures of a dilapidated children’s hospital in Almaty on her Facebook page, she no doubt hoped the authorities would act — but she probably did not expect such a fast result.
The pictures posted by Ainura Seitakyn showing grimy toilet facilities and a dismal-looking ward with peeling paintwork and cracked tiles caused a social media outcry. The furore got Almaty’s new mayor, Baurzhan Baybek, out from behind his desk to take a non-virtual look at conditions at the Almaty Children’s City Clinical Infection Hospital.
Hospital staff spruced the place up with a lick of paint before he arrived — but Baybek was not fooled. After the grim-faced mayor visited the hospital on September 17, the head of the chief doctor and two senior healthcare staff rolled, Almatynews.kz website reported.
“You’re sitting in here, it’s alright for you. So you don’t care what it’s like over there for others,” said an angry Baybek, presumably referring to the somewhat more luxurious office of the chief doctor, which was also pictured in Seitakyn’s photos. “Would you place your children here in these conditions?”
Baybek’s hands-on approach won plaudits from a public unaccustomed to top officials delving into the nitty-gritty of their problems and reacting so fast to solve them.
His actions suggest that the 42-year-old mayor, an up-and-coming politician who only came to office a month ago, has a keener sense of the public mood than his older-generation predecessor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov.
Foreign ministers, defense ministers and heads of security councils of CSTO member nations pose for a photograph ahead of a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. (Photo: EurasiaNet.org)
As expected, anxieties about the claimed threat posed to Central Asia by the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits dominated talk at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe on September 15.
Host president Emomali Rahmon set the tone with his remarks.
“Tajikistan has drawn the attention of colleagues to the current situation in the region as a whole and in Afghanistan in particular,” he said. “The specter of emergencies and security threats in the region is not diminishing, and could even grow.”
It was Russian leader Vladimir Putin that made the point about Islamic State most forcefully.
“The risk of terrorist and extremist organizations making incursions into countries neighboring Afghanistan has increased. Moreover, this threat is made worse by the fact that along with the organizations known to be active in Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic State too has increased its influence,” he said during a heads of states meeting at the summit.
Out of the three former Soviet Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, only Tajikistan is a CSTO member. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have spurned the Moscow-led alliance.
Ahead of the summit, Russian newspaper Kommersant cited an unnamed CSTO official as saying the fight against the Islamic State has led member states to consider proposals on alliance contingents being deployed outside the organization’s borders to take part in an international coalition operating under the auspices of the United Nations.
Putin appeared to be alluding to such a possibility in his remarks.
“Basic common sense and responsibility for global and regional security demands that the global community unites in the face of these threats,” he said.
The president of Kazakhstan’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been named deputy prime minister in an appointment that will reignite speculation she is being primed to succeed her father.
Nazarbayeva, 52, has hitherto spent the bulk of her political career in Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament.
Nazarbayeva was appointed to the post by her father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a decree signed on September 11.
No explanation has been offered for Nazarbayeva’s elevation to the office, but she replaces Berdybek Saparbayev, who has been named governor of the oil-rich Aktobe Region as part of a reshuffle of provincial officials.
Nazarbayeva had previously held the position of deputy speaker of parliament, where she also headed the faction of the ruling Nur Otan party, which is led by her father.
Her appointment to government seals a political comeback that Nazarbayeva has made in recent times, following several years in the political wilderness sparked by the downfall of her former husband, Rakhat Aliyev. He fell afoul of Nazarbayev and fled Kazakhstan in 2007, after which the president’s daughter divorced him.
Aliyev was later found guilty in trials held in absentia in Kazakhstan of a litany of crimes ranging from kidnapping and embezzlement to plotting a coup d’etat.
In February he was found hanged in a prison cell in Austria, where he was on trial for the murder of two Kazakhstani bankers.
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
A board showing exchange rates in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on September 10, 2015.
Kazakhstan’s currency hit historic lows on September 9 in another day of decline for the tenge on the stock exchange since the government last month stopped propping it up.
By the evening, the tenge was trading at 261 to the dollar in exchange offices in Almaty, the financial capital.
The currency recovered slightly on September 10, with bureaux de change in Almaty buying dollars at 258 tenge in the morning and at 253 by lunchtime. That was the same as the rate set by the National Bank, which has fallen by 6 percent over the course of a week.
The tenge closed at 255 to the dollar on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on September 9, but appreciated to close at 252 at the end of morning trading the following day.
Exchange rates have experienced intense volatility since August 20, when the government announced it was finally abandoning costly efforts to maintain the national currency. President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at the time that authorities had spent $28 billion since the start of 2014 on defending the tenge.
The move to a free float was inevitable, but it has been painful for Kazakhstanis, whose currency has depreciated by 36 percent since the decision was taken.